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Firms Want Lawyers with Emotional Intelligence—Huh?

Vivia Chen

May 15, 2013

Man with Glasses © snaptitude - Fotolia.comI guess it's like pornography: It's tricky to define, but you know it when you see it. I'm talking about emotional intelligence ("EI" for the cognoscenti), the latest buzz phrase that's been embraced by law firms.

Partners often tell me that hiring those with emotional intelligence—that is, people with interpersonal skills—is a priority. It's supposed to be good for client relations, esprit de corps, productivity, broken hearts—whatever ails you. That seems reasonable, though I wonder where firms will find those precious species, considering that personality has never ranked high on the priority list in the legal world.

Indeed, the legal profession lags behind the business sector on the EI front. Some business schools screen for EI right at the starting gate. Besides submitting their GMATs, college transcripts, and essays, MBA aspirants "need to shine by showing emotional traits like empathy, motivation, resilience," reports The Wall Street Journal.

The WSJ describes the screening techniques at a number of B-schools and other institutions. Applicants to Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business have to complete "a 206-item online questionnaire called the Personal Characteristics Inventory." Yale's School of Management recently developed a 141-item test that "measures how well applicants might manage or understand their own emotions with questions about everyday scenarios." And Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business now asks those who write recommendations to score applicants about their "ability to cope with pressure, intellectual curiosity, and other traits."

It seems to be a no-brainer that law should also focus on these skills to ensure long-term success. But both law schools and firms tend to place an outsized emphasis on grades and scores—which, in my mind, is a rather short-term approach.

Dan Bowling, who teaches a class on lawyers and well-being at Duke Law School, says law schools don't consider applicants' EI but should, because it's "an excellent predictor—along with traditional IQ—of success in numerous domains." He speculates that schools don't take it into account "because it seems negatively correlated with [the traits of] most law school professors!"

But recruiter Dan Binstock says law firms are starting to pay attention to emotional intelligence, even if they don't use that terminology. "For example, McKenna Long is doing personality testing for laterals," he says. "In my experience, candidates who have higher levels of emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills always experience more success on interviews because, not surprisingly, the ability to connect with the interviewers implies the ability to connect with the firm’s clients."

To be perfectly honest, I'm still doubtful that firms grasp or care about this issue. Maybe I'm too cynical, but I'll bet many lawyers still regard "emotional intelligence" as an oxymoron. Am I wrong?

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Alison, I am glad you were impressed by Angela's TED talk on Grit. She is great - I have studied under her and know am a colleague. As I understand the work on perserverance, it is not that grit replaces IQ or EQ, but when it exists in similar populations (say law students) it accounts for some of the better long term performance.
Dan Bowling

I'm very skeptical about this whole thing. First off, EI is not limited to the grads from the top schools & with the highest grades. When firms actually consider people without regard to "pedigree," then I'd be inclined to take this seriously. I have never had a client who cared where I went to law school or if I was on law review. Second, if we're including accessibility and getting clients to trust you in EI that's something you can't really teach. It's something that you either have or you don't. You can't make a stuffy, stereotypical jerk into a hip, accessible and caring person. Clients can spot fakers in a second. If you can't tell, I'm someone who despises the whole law firm & legal industry atmosphere but own a business and have success in an area that is all about your EI.

I recently watched a TED talk (http://www.ted.com/talks/angela_lee_duckworth_the_key_to_success_grit.html) that suggested grit (a person's perseverance in the presence of challenges), not IQ or EQ was one of the most critical components of a person's success. The talk focused on children, but I believe studies that were referenced dealt with adults as well.

"TYPE" is fixed, EI is changeable and can be developed. For those who choose to pay attention to it, develop it and use it to build and sustain colleague and client relationships it is priceless. Lawyers are smart and figure that out pretty quickly when exposed to it.

Firms are going to really struggle to recruit candidates with EI. For starters, most partners have precious little EI, in my experience. They are, in fact, usually hostile to those who exhibit EI, thinking they are soft, unambitious, not rigorous thinkers, etc.
Which leads to the second part of why this is going to be difficult for firms to embrace: Those with EI can see pretty clearly that their EI is not valued, and is often derided, in the law firm environment. So why on earth would they sign up for that?
Finally, some of what makes lawyers good lawyers is their ability to be dispassionate analysts, and use logic and reason as their primary tools of problem-solving. In the Meyers-Briggs world, they are Thinkers. (see my post on Thinker v. Feelers in law: http://leavinglaw.wordpress.com/2010/12/08/the-other-key-lawyer-personality-trait-think-dont-feel/) Those with a strong T often have a hard time seeing any value in those who approach problems with value first, logic second, which to my mind is precisely what those with EI often do.

I don't think you're cynical at all, Vivia. But I do think law firms as we know them are poised for extinction unless they get a handle on valuing EI, because they're not going to save themselves through logic.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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